Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review: "Into the Teeth of the Tiger" by Donald S. Lopez

Some time in the late 1920's young Don Lopez, not quite four years old, was taken by his parents to see a parade. He sat on a Brooklyn curb for a long time, amid a throng of people. Then...
"I was caught by a surge of excitement, stood up, and waved at a man in an open car to the accompaniment of loud cheers of 'Lindy! Lindy!' Time has erased other details of that incident, but the image of that handsome, heroic figure has stayed with me. I cannot remember a time since when I was not interested in flight."

It was the air age, and an air minded youngster could go to the movies to see Hell's Angels and Wings, could read pulp magazines like Battle Birds and G-8 and His Battle Aces, and could go to Floyd Bennett Field to see Northrop Gammas and Curtiss Condors, Wiley Post's Vega and Amelia Earheart's Electra. Don Lopez did all of these things. And he scrounged an occasional airplane ride from a barnstormer friend of the family who had a WACO cabin biplane.

His ardor for aviation didn't cool when his family moved to Tampa, FL in 1939 and settled under the traffic pattern for Drew Army Airfield. There he could watch the military aviators in their P-39 Airacobras and vow that someday he'd fly a P-39 – a promise he was able to keep.

After graduating from high school in June 1941, he entered the University of Tampa as an engineering student. There was a war on in Europe and the previous year President Roosevelt had, famously, called for the production of 50,000 airplanes. The Army had no idea where they would get 50,000 pilots, and so the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was begun. Flight training was offered to college freshmen and Don Lopez surely didn't need to be asked twice. He completed the 35 flight hours and the written test needed at the time for a Student Pilot Certificate and in the fall of 1942 he joined the Army's flight training program. Like so many of his peers he progressed through a succession of increasingly demanding aircraft – from the Fairchild PT-19, to the Vultee BT-13, to the North American AT-6. In May of 1943 got his wings, and orders to report to Tallahassee for advanced pursuit training.

Lopez writes that he was a bit disappointed to be assigned to a unit flying the Curtiss P-40N Warhawk. The more modern P-38's and P-51's had beckoned, but the venerable P-40 was to be his ride and he came to appreciate it. He learned instrument flying, night flying, formation flying, air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery, and combat tactics. The pilot was becoming a fighter pilot.

There was lots of time for aerobatics and simulated combat, which the pilots referred to as "rat racing", and writing a half century later, the author recalls the elation:

"All in all, the hours I spent rat racing above central Florida were some of the most enjoyable of my life, especially among the cumulus clouds that usually formed in the afternoons. Diving, in trail, into the dark valleys between the clouds, and then zooming up over the bright, sunlit, towering hills, only to roll inverted to hurtle down the other side, was pure joy and I wished it could go on forever."

In September of 1943, Lt. Lopez and his fellow fledgling fighter pilots were pushed out of the nest and sent off to war. Some went to Europe, some to the Pacific, and some – including the author – went to the CBI, or China-Burma-India theater. The trek to war was long, across the South Atlantic and Equatorial Africa, and pausing in Karachi, India. There, pilots being rotated out of combat and headed back to the USA flew with the incoming replacements for a time, to try to transfer some of their hard-won understanding of combat flying in the hope of increasing the younger fliers' odds of survival.

After two months of this, in November '43, the author was ordered, to his great satisfaction, to report to the 14th Air Force in China. He joined the 23rd Fighter Group, the unit that had been created from the remnants of Gen. Claire Chennault's AVG (the famous American Volunteer Group, or more popularly, the "Flying Tigers"). The group was commanded by the legendary Lt.Col. David Lee "Tex" Hill.

After a long flight across the Himalaya's (the famous "Hump"), the fliers arrived in Kweilin, met (and were impressed by) Tex Hill, and were dispersed to front-line squadrons. Lt. Lopez would fly with the 75th Squadron based at Hengyang. After thirteen months of training and preparation, he would finally get to fly a P-40 toward the enemy and fire shots in anger.

The first combat missions that the author describes were air-to-ground strafing runs. The 14th Air Force was trying to interdict the logistics of the Japanese Army, in support of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops, and so they flew low over roads, rails and lakes and shot up trucks and trains and boats. In this, they were terribly effective:

"We continued attacking the boats, essing across them as we strafed until all the boats were burning or sinking and everyone on the decks appeared dead. It was awesome to realize that a slight pressure by my right forefinger was the difference between life and death for the soldiers on the boat. I felt no compunction, since I, along with the rest of the country, was totally convinced of the need to defeat Japan. These were, after all, the ones responsible for Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and numerous other atrocities that began, incidentally, here in China.

Killing from the air is impersonal. The pilot shoots at small moving figures several hundred yards away. Except for seeing them fall, like toy soldiers, there is none of the bloody evidence of death that one would see in close ground combat."

It would be June of 1944 before the author recorded his first air-to-air "kill", which he describes thusly:

"I immediately broke hard right, jettisoned my belly tank, and headed for the Oscars. As we approached, the Oscars broke up and went in all directions. I lined up one, but just as I got within range he flipped into a tight turn, and I couldn't get enough lead to fire. I rolled over and saw an Oscar below me. I dived after him, and he went into a tight right turn. I wouldn't have been able to hit him, but he suddenly reversed his turn, and I nailed him before he could turn in the opposite direction. I must have killed the pilot, because he went into a gradually steepening dive without any evasive action.

... It was satisfying to shoot down an enemy fighter... Air-to-air combat is what every fighter pilot is trained for, and even though ground attack is dangerous and important tactically, it doesn't come close to air combat for exhilaration and satisfaction."

Ultimately, Don Lopez would score four aerial victories in the P-40 and one later in the P-51, making him an Ace. Throughout the book, he writes approvingly about the Warhawk. This is a marked contrast to the views of another notable fighter pilot, Col. Jim Morehead. In his book, In My Sights, he expresses neither affection for nor trust in the Curtiss fighter. But Jim Morehead flew and fought in the Dutch East Indies in the dark days of early 1942 and this is likely to have colored his thoughts. On the other hand, Don Lopez says of the P-40:
"We were proud to wear the mantle of the Flying Tigers and continued to use the tactics developed by General Chennault for them with great success. We used the strengths of the P-40, diving speed and rugged construction, to overcome the maneuverability of the Zeros and Oscars. We always kept up our speed and never tried to out-turn a Japanese fighter. If one evaded us with a tight turn we just kept diving, then climbed up and attacked again."

On the 4th of August 1944, Don Lopez made good use of those strengths of the P-40 in a memorable fashion. He had been strafing enemy units at low level and had exhausted his ammunition. While climbing back to higher altitude...

"...I spotted a bunch of Japanese circling over Hengyang. We headed toward them and saw that there were twelve Oscars covering six or eight Aichi D3A Val dive bombers that were attacking Hengyang...

As we closed on them Quig instructed everyone who was out of ammunition to go home and told his flight that he was going down after the Vals. I signaled my element leader to take the flight home. They peeled off to the south and I went after the Oscars. I figured that Quig's flight could use some help in keeping the Oscars off them and that the Japanese couldn't tell that I was out of ammunition.

I made a diving head-on pass through the Oscars and they scattered like birds in all directions. When an enemy fighter is diving on you, the last thing you do is try to see if he is firing at you. Break first, think later, is the rule."

The author continues his description of the episode and notes that his buddy Quig and crew, unmolested by the Oscars, shot down several of the dive bombers. For his role that day, Don Lopez was awarded the Silver Star.

The stories go on, as the author recounts his path to 100 combat missions. At that time, 100 missions got you rotated back to the States for leave and eventual reassignment. And so as 1945 began, Don Lopez was off combat status and awaiting his orders for home. Here, the story includes a vignette titled, "A Warrior's Mercy", and of it the author says, "On January 19, 1945, I played a small part in a drama that was as tragic as anything William Shakespeare ever wrote." It is plainly written and powerfully affecting.

Don Lopez began the long journey home in February, stopping again in Karachi but this time as the trainer, not the trainee. It was early May of 1945 when he arrived in Miami. A month later he was at his new assignment as a test pilot at Eglin Field in Florida. He'd spend the next five years there, testing the early jet fighters.

Into the Teeth of the Tiger is Don Lopez' story. The book does not list a co-author, there is no "as told to...". The voice is authentic, the details are precise and the feelings for adventures survived and comrades lost are sharp and true. This is a splendid book.

After his retirement from the Air Force, Don Lopez became Deputy Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He went West on 3 March 2008, aged 84, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Cedarglen said...

Great rwview, Frank. Thanks for your effort. -C.

Frank Van Haste said...

Thanks, Craig. I enjoyed the book.

Stand by, tho', because I have Don Lopez' second book, Fighter Pilots'Heaven in the "to be read" queue. You'll probably see a review of that one in a few weeks.

Best regards,